Real-World Impact: My Reflections as UC Davis’ First Fellow of the Academy of Management

The importance of bringing your whole self to work

Most scholars will tell you that they don’t think about the potential influence of their work while they are immersed in it. Only later, and with some prompting, do we reflect on how the influence of our work has affected our world and our lives.

So it was for me, as I received news that I would be the first faculty member from UC Davis to be elected as a Fellow of the Academy of Management—an honor bestowed upon those who have made “a significant contribution to the science and practice of management.”   

I asked myself, “what real-world impact has your work made?”

Making Sense of Who We Are

For me, the answer was that my work, in a small way, has helped people make sense of who they are as members of organizations (e.g., at work, hobbies, school, etc.). This includes understanding both their self-perceptions, as well as how others perceive them in their organizations.

Joining an organization or even being affiliated with one is not just a means to material outcomes for most people (e.g., pay, prestige or learning)—it is also something they do to fulfill needs for meaning and authenticity.

One area of my research highlights our human need for meaning and authenticity among organizational members. This includes workers and other stakeholders, like customers or alumni, and I found that people actually seek out organizations whose values are aligned with their own. Further, this work has shown that individuals may forgo material benefits, like higher pay or status, to belong to organizations that affirm who they are.

header - getty images
Elsbach's research focused on NASCAR fans appreciation and dedication to the sport and cited patriotism, family values as two main correlations. 

For example, my recent research on what motivates fans to affiliate with NASCAR (the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing), showed this commitment was not about enhancing their status but rather the ability to “be themselves,” or what we call engaging in “authentic self-expression.”

The Importance of Being Your “True Self”

This study was the first empirical field research to show a factor other than status or prestige as the primary motivator of organizational identification. But the findings were not surprising to the many NASCAR fans I spoke to, nor were they surprising to many of my students, who were members of organizations.

These people intuitively understood that they didn’t join organizations just for prestige or status. At the same time, most of them couldn’t pinpoint what was prompting them to seek out the specific organizations to which they belonged. My work helped them understand how needs for authenticity underlay their motivations to join.

More importantly, it helped them understand that providing opportunities to be your “true self” at work was important to most employees.

Connecting Authenticity Research to My Classroom and Community

My research has helped people understand and appreciate the need for authenticity while at work and at play. This is an area that has gained considerable attention in recent years – i.e., idea of bringing “one’s whole self to work” -- especially in high-tech work.

While teaching, I talk about this idea with MBA students, and see it play out in organizations in my local business community. Bringing research ideas back to the business school classroom and to the managers I interact with through executive education programs gives me the chance to make an impact locally and globally.